EU sanctions Russian military intelligence for cyberattacks

The sanctions, including a travel ban and asset freeze, mark the first time that Brussels has used such measures to retaliate for online aggression

A computer programmer hacking a secure system. (releon8211 via iStock)
A computer programmer hacking a secure system. (releon8211 via iStock)

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union on Thursday slapped sanctions on six people and three organizations, including Russia’s military intelligence agency, accusing them of responsibility for several cyberattacks that threatened EU interests.

EU headquarters said in a statement that those targeted include people considered to be involved in the 2017 “WannaCry” ransomware attack, the “NotPetya” strike that notably caused havoc in Ukraine, and the “Operation Cloud Hopper” hacking campaign.

The sanctions are the first that the EU has ever imposed for cyberattacks.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that “the measures concerned are a travel ban and asset freeze to natural persons and an asset freeze to entities or bodies. It is also prohibited to directly or indirectly make funds available to listed individuals and entities or bodies.”

Four members of Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency were singled out. The EU accuses them of trying to hack the wifi network of the Netherlands-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which has probed the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The 2018 attack was foiled by Dutch authorities.

Two Chinese nationals were also targeted over “Operation Cloud Hopper,” which the EU said hit IT systems in companies on six continents, including Europe, and “gained unauthorized access to commercially sensitive data, resulting in significant economic loss.”

On Tuesday, US government officials with knowledge of the matter told The Associated Press that Russian intelligence officers were spreading disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic through English-language websites, trying to exploit a crisis that America is struggling to contain before the presidential election in November.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell speaks during a media conference in Brussels, June 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, Pool)

Two Russians who have held senior roles in Moscow’s military intelligence service known as the GRU have been identified as responsible for a disinformation effort meant to reach American and Western audiences, according to the officials, who were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Russian officials on Wednesday rejected the accusations as “conspiracy theories” and a “persistent phobia.” One of the sites singled out by the US posted a response denouncing as “categorically false” the American assertions that it was linked to the Russian military intelligence service or was involved in propaganda.

The information had previously been classified, but US officials said it had been downgraded so they could more freely discuss it. Officials said they were doing so now to sound the alarm about the particular websites and to expose what they say is a clear link between the sites and Russian intelligence.

The spread of disinformation, including by Russia, is an urgent concern heading into the November vote. US officials want to avoid a repeat of the 2016 contest, when a Russian troll farm launched a covert social media campaign to divide American public opinion and to favor then-candidate Donald Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

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